Bangkok – For two years Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has shrugged off revelations by foreign journalists that almost $1 billion turned up in his personal bank accounts amid one of the world’s biggest ever financial scandals.
Now Mr Najib, preparing to call early elections, has accused journalists of fabricating fake news about Malaysia.
“This tide of fake and false news threatens of turn the truth into a purely subjective matter, with little relation to the actual facts,” he told an Asian media awards event in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday evening.
In a country where the mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government and small independent media outlets are under constant threat of closure and legal action, Mr Najib also claimed that free speech is “thriving”, pointing to what he called regular criticism of the government, ministers and officials in the local media.
But with freedom, he said, comes responsibility. He quoted the then Manchester Guardian’s long-time editor CP Scott who famously declared that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
“The government of Malaysia will be on your side,” Mr Najib told representatives of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“All we ask in return is the opportunity to remind you to rely on your reporting and sourcing, in whichever country that may be: not on rumours, not on unsourced anonymous quotes, and not on invented propaganda, no matter how persuasively it may be presented – but on verified facts,” he said.
Investigations are underway in at least five countries into how billions of dollars went missing from Malaysia’s state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Mr Najib set up in 2009 and supervised through his chairmanship of an advisory board.
The Sarawak Report, a small online site based in London and The Wall Street Journal, had traced a complex web of global banking transactions from 1MDB.
The Prime Minister claimed $US681 million ($907 million) that arrived in his personal accounts was a gift from a mysterious unnamed Saudi prince and that he returned $US620 million of it.
He denies any wrongdoing and has been cleared of any charges by his attorney-general.
But even if he did return the money, which critics ridicule, Mr Najib has failed to explain what happened to the remaining $US61 million.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has emerged as a fierce critic of Mr Najib, wrote in his blog this week that there must be bank records detailing movement of the money in today’s largely cashless world.
Dr Mahathir said banking secrecy should not get in the way of an investigation by government authorities into alleged criminal acts. He said unless it can be proved otherwise, the money in Mr Najib’s account must be deemed to be money stolen from 1MBD.
“The person stealing the money must be classified as a thief whether he is punished or not,” Dr Mahathir said.
In his speech to the publishers, Mr Najib railed against media outlets which had talked about Malaysia being in danger of becoming a failed state.
“Unfortunately when the government’s opponents spread fake news, some people believe them, because they believe – wrongly – that they would not lie,” Mr Najib said.
“This is not confined to Malaysian social media,” he said.
“A well-known foreign newspaper has taken to printing complete lies about the government,” he said in an apparent reference to The Wall Street Journal.
Four of the Journal’s journalists were last year named as finalists in the US’s Pulitzer Prize for what judges said was their “masterful” reporting that exposed corruption at the highest level of a fragile democracy, leading to “Malaysia’s Watergate”.
Analysts believe Mr Najib, a close ally of successive Australian governments, is preparing the ground for early elections this year. The elections don’t have to be held until 2018.
With opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in jail on sodomy charges widely seen as politically motivated, the country’s opposition alliance has splintered.
Mr Najib has maintained a tight grip on power through support of powerbrokers in his long-ruling United Malays National Organisation.
WRITER: Lindsay Murdoch, The Sydney Morning Herald